The Guy in Center Field, by Frank Vespe

Long before I was invited to try out for the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, I dreamed of being the guy in center field, rubbing eye-black face paint on my cheekbones, making over-the-shoulder, World Series-type catches like number 24, a gazelle shagging flies on a lime-colored, open grass pasture, my body fully extended diving to my left, inches from the ground, snagging a low line drive, lobbing a foul ball to an adoring fan behind the white “410” at Shea, all the while chewing on five pieces of soft grape Bazooka. 

The view from center field is surreal, staring at the layout of the diamond, the players in front of me poised perfectly as if ready for a choreographed ballet performance, silent, determined, mannequin-like, waiting for their cue: the unmistakable crack of the bat. And then, like ants hunting watermelon, they scatter toward the five-ounce ball from Costa Rica. Beautiful.

Abruptly, my euphoria came to a halt when our first-string catcher took an errant slider to an exposed part of his right toe, and Coach Bob screamed out to me in center: “Hey, Golden Jet,” which he had named me for my long blond hair, “throw on the catcher’s gear.” And for the next 30 years I never moved from behind that white, 17-inch-wide, upside-down hard-rubber design we call “home.”

Leaving center field, my happy place, after five spectacular seasons was sad, especially when I realized girls might no longer stop me on the sidewalks of Astoria and ask, “Are you the guy in center field?”

By the end of the first game, though, I’d found my new love: being the second most active player on the field, calling every pitch, and suiting up before each inning as if I were a Navy SEAL, decades before Navy SEALs were movie stars. I became more and more comfortable behind the plate, socializing with every batter who stood in the batter’s box, irritating the umpires till they said “Cut the chatter” to move the game along. 

My self-esteem exploded, leading me to speak freely to anyone I met, on and off the ball field, all thanks to my newfound career as our team’s catcher. Soon, girls changed their tune as well: “Are you the guy behind the mask?”

But with any good fortune, sometimes bad fortune follows, as I learned one day in early April, a week after my 14th birthday, when a good buddy, teammate, and future Triple-A minor leaguer stepped into the batter’s box during batting practice.

Bobby Nandin was good, real good, the best shortstop I ever had on my team; never missed a ground ball and never struck out. (I tried to blow a fastball by him when I pitched in a summer league, and he hit it 400 feet over the left-field fence — and he was only 15!) Bobby always made contact, except this one at-bat when his foul tip went straight into my mask. The impact thrust my head back like the image from Dealey Plaza, causing me to lose hearing for a minute. I keeled over, and Coach Bob had to stop practice to ask me my name and what day it was. I knew my name, but wasn’t sure of the day. 

My only memories of that day are the unforgettable odor of smelling salts, the ringing in my ears, and the headache I had all night. (Bobby played nine seasons with the Detroit Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays organizations, among others.) 

My catcher’s-mask attraction to foul balls continued, thousands of times, while I caught for Long Island City High School in Queens, with one game being especially noteworthy. 

John Dinkelmeyer, my pitcher, had a good fastball and a nasty hard curve, which I called numerous times when Richie Shubert, a pitcher for our archrival Bryant High School, stood in the batter’s box. With an 0-and-2 count, I broke baseball’s cardinal rule and called for a fastball, inside at the knees, hoping the batter would stand stoic and watch it sail by.

Richie was big, real big, stood over 6 feet, looked like, and had the power of, a major leaguer, and when he swung with all his might, instead of hitting the scoreboard in right field, the foul tip went straight to my forehead, knocking me into the umpire. I heard verses of Minnie Ripperton’s “Lovin’ You” play over and over in my head until we resumed the game. Again, the headache that night felt like I had been hit in the head with a 90-mile-per-hour fastball.

John was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, and Richie played for Texas Rangers minor league clubs. 

My days of driving 89 miles to play games at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow and Baseball Heaven in Yaphank ended two years ago, when my son joined the local high school baseball team, not as the catcher, but as a starting pitcher. Sometimes I feel compelled to don the team’s catcher’s gear and jump behind the plate, but I’m not sure I can follow his splitter. 

In January, I awoke in the middle of the night with an unexplained massive headache, a headache that took three 200-milligram tablets of Target’s Up & Up ibuprofen to squash. A month later, the massive headache returned, and again the following month, leading me to wonder if it was caused by too many Snyder’s salty pretzels or too many Bobby, John, and Richie foul tips to my face mask, finally revealing years of trauma.

I’ve warned my family that if I ever lose my “Good Day Sunshine” personality, have lengthy conversations with the box of Cheerios I placed in the freezer, or hunt for my catcher’s mitt in the attic and say, “Piazza called in sick, they need me,” please blame my self-diagnosed, self-named ailment — Catcher’s Syndrome, a disease caused by thousands of 90-mile-per-hour foul tips I stopped with my face, instead of my glove.

I wish I was the guy in center field.

Frank Vespe lives in Springs.